Mario Testino on founding his own full-service agency: 'I'm creative but my essence is commerce'

Testino recently worked with Dove on its 'Real Beauty' campaign

Having snapped everyone from Kate Moss to Diana Spencer, Mario Testino is one of the world’s most prolific photographers. Here, The Drum catches up with creative as he lifts the lid on how his own agency is structured and why he treats brand briefs the same as artistic ones.

As part of Cannes Lions last week Mario Testino was interviewed by Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth. Throughout their discussion he sat with his camera perched on his lap, before snapping a selfie with the crowd.

It’s this proclivity to capture the moment combined with a sharp, and instantly recognisable, style that has earned Testino universal recognition and an enviable black book to go along with it.

Not only has he worked with most of the top fashion houses including Gucci, Versace, Burberry and Chanel, but his portraiture spans everyone from the Spice Girls to Anna Wintour, Grayson Perry to Jay-Z. Lesser known, perhaps, is that 10 years ago he opened the doors to his own full-service creative agency, MarioTestino+, which under his leadership offers creative direction, brand strategy, product development and graphic design.

He created the consultancy initially in response to his client list – which includes Vogue and Mercedes – requesting to work on projects directly with him.

“They almost pushed me to start my own agency,” he told The Drum. “People know me for my photography, but [at the agency] we make and direct all the films, all the behind-the-scenes, design the layouts, produce all the digital cut downs, and now create all the social media and branded content.”

Testino has been well-known in fashion circles for some time, having first arrived in London from Peru in the 70s and working as a waiter while selling portfolios to up-and-coming models for £25 a-pop to fund his studies. His first commission was to photograph a girl’s haircut for British Vogue, but it was years later in the 90s that he was propelled to global fame after being asked by Vanity Fair to snap portraits of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The brief initiated a longstanding relationship between the photographer and the royal family, which cumulated in him being commissioned to take Prince William and Kate Middleton’s official engagement photographs in 2010. In that same year he shot 30 Rock star Tina Fey’s Vogue spread, and Versace’s fall campaign. When quizzed on whether he varies the way he works between brand shoots and artistic ones, the answer is a firm no.

“I approach them in exactly the same way," he said. "When I shoot for Vogue I'm still shooting for a brand. My job is to listen and engage the client's reality, not my own. I try to understand what the brand is trying to say and reduce it to an image so people understand what the company is all about. I'm creative but my essence is commerce, really. At the end of the day we need to create imagery that people want to devour.”

This joined up strategy is reflective within the walls of his agency, which comprises a team dedicated to creating new work for editorial and commercial clients, a team that supports activities like exhibitions, another dedicated to publishing and archives and a final group focused on his philanthropic endeavors in his home country – for which he has been awarded an OBE.

“These days, while we are roughly structured around these divisions, they are all more blurred than ever. Our client work and my branded content, press and social media are now working closely together, but also clients are becoming involved in my publishing, my art, my exhibitions, my philanthropy and my interest in design,” he noted.

Testino’s experience of the ever converging media landscape is representative of a trend also seeping into the newsrooms of fashion, luxury and lifestyle publishers, with the likes of Hearst agreeing the gap between ‘church and state’ is narrowing. FarFetch’s recent deal with Condé Nast, which will see magazines like Vogue and GQ commercialise online and social content, is also testament to this shift.

"I find freedom and limitations in both. My prize is how I do it, not the end of what I do," the photopgraher said when pressed on whether he finds more freedom in a brand brief or his own.

A post shared by MARIO TESTINO (@mariotestino) on

On where he draws influence after decades in the industry, Testino said simply "everywhere".

"I travel almost every day, I find inspiration from everything and everyone. From the smallest detail, to entire cities. Change is inspiring for me, I need to keep pushing, pushing - the moment you think 'you are', you're not," he added.

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